There is so much available information about SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19. It often can be hard to distinguish between what’s true and what is speculation, and it can be even more difficult to understand the scientific explanations for those not in the field. Berea College biology professor and virologist Dr. Dawn Anderson has studied viruses for a large portion of her career, and her knowledge helped inform some of the College’s decisions around policies and actions to keep Berea’s campus as safe as possible over this past year.
The College had two logistics groups that met regularly beginning in summer 2020 to plan for campus life and a possible return to in-person instruction for the Fall 2020 semester. Dr. Anderson served as a resource person for both groups as they discussed the spread of the virus and what protocols were needed.
For years, when Anderson’s microbiology students studied influenza and the 1918 pandemic, they invariably asked if she thought it would ever happen again. Anderson said she always replied that it was about when, not if, another pandemic would occur.
“I assumed it would be decades or 100 years from now,” Anderson said. “I never thought I’d be experiencing a big pandemic.”
What do we know about COVID-19?
COVID-19 first came on the scene in December 2019 as an unknown pneumonia and the first case was reported in the U.S. in mid-January 2020. According to Anderson, the virus is unique, but behaves similarly as other viruses coming into a naïve population—a population that has never seen it before—and wreaks havoc in the beginning.
“Historically, in terms of a lot of the other coronaviruses that humans have lived with forever, like the common cold, when they arose in the human population in the 1800s, they caused a lot of illness,” Anderson said. “They are just little replicating entities that can make you really sick. But the best viruses out there—the ones that survive long term—are the ones that make you sick but don’t kill you. With the common cold, you get the sniffles and you pass it on to someone else. The virus’s goal is for you to get symptomatic and then pass it on to someone else so it can replicate more. The virus doesn’t want to kill you because you aren’t going to pass it along if you die.”
Anderson agrees with others in the field, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, that the best way to limit replication and the introduction of new strains is to limit transmission.
“The more we inhibit the virus’s ability to replicate, the greater chance that we won’t have new strains developing,” Anderson said. “The only way to slow the development of new strains is to prevent the virus from replicating, and the way to do that is to prevent transmission. The only way we really have to do that right now is masking up and staying apart,” Anderson said.
Why does it affect people so differently?
With most viruses there are sub-sections of the population that seem to be more vulnerable or whose immune systems react more violently. Everyone’s immune system is different and made up of so many factors, the reason for such varied reactions cannot be narrowed to just one, Anderson said.
“The people who really do a deep dive and have horrible conditions where their lungs fill up with fluid, they can’t breathe and they feel like they are drowning, that seems to be the result of a massive triggering of the immune system in that person,” Anderson explained. “It is caused by this phenomenon known as a cytokine storm. What happens is your immune system recognizes the virus and goes into hyper drive and you get all these inflammatory chemicals released. Inflammation activates your immune system. This is a hyper inflammation, and one of the things with inflammation is leakage of fluid from other places into places like your lungs.
“I know researchers have looked at the respiratory tracts in people who have had those responses and they see lots and lots of indicators of massive inflammation,” she continued. “So some of the damage is not caused by the virus itself, but by the body responding to the virus.”
The 1918 influenza pandemic was similar in that many who died from the flu were young people with strong immune systems that just hyper-responded to the virus, Anderson added.
How quickly will vaccines help us “get back to normal?”
Anderson said she hopes vaccines help dramatically in getting things back to a new normal. “I don’t mind teaching online, I’m getting reasonably good at it…but I’d much rather be back in the classroom,” Anderson said. “But it won’t be ‘back to normal.’ It won’t be back to what it was. There is before COVID and after COVID, and we’ll never go back to before COVID. We can’t. But what we can do is mitigate the possibility that we will have transmission. The more people who get vaccinated, that will immediately decrease the amount of transmission. I think vaccination is key.
“I know everyone wants the pandemic to be over quickly; it’s not going to be,” Anderson continued. “We’re going to be living with this for the duration. I’ve heard this from other virologists in doing other reading that it may be like the flu. Every year it comes back around and you’re going to have to get a vaccine—it’s now part of us. The one good thing is it’s not going to be a situation where we have to live like this forever because what happens over time with most viruses, like other coronaviruses that are persisting, they tend to become less pathogenic over time. They just become part of those pathogens that routinely infect us, and we learn to live with them.”
In relation to the creation of the vaccine, Anderson described how in the beginning, many labs that were working on other things switched to working on COVID research if they had the capacity to do so. With targeted money and resources, the all-hands-on-deck mentality allowed for a swifter process, she said.
“The vaccine is safe,” Anderson said. “I know there is some hesitancy about how fast these vaccines rolled out. I’ve heard people make comments, saying ‘Well normally it takes years to do this.’ Well yes, because there are only a few companies working on it, and they don’t have endless supplies of money. But what was done was to throw a lot of money and a lot of good people at developing vaccines. The technology of these vaccines has been around a long time. …It has been used in research a lot, just not in vaccines. It’s not a new thing that they just came up with. They are using technology that has been in the research lab for a decade at least.”
For Anderson, it’s imperative that people understand the pandemic on a realistic timeline. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said. “I really think if we can stop thinking about it as if there is a finish line—this is one of those long runs. If you can change your mindset of how you look at the pandemic—this is not something we’re going to get over fast. It’s a continuum and a process we will move through. At some point there will be sort of a finish line, but we won’t burst through the ribbon with our arms held high.”